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The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society

by David Waltner-Toews

Shit – a mass-produced, quotidian product – is something that, for various cultural reasons, we don’t talk about much. For veterinarian and epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews, this is a mistake his new book aims to rectify.

“Shit” is Waltner-Toews’ preferred term. He surveys a wide array of synonyms – crap, dung, manure, feces, excrement – but returns to the Germanic root word, which straddles popular and academic culture, science and everyday life. His thesis is that we can’t find our way out of the shit we’re in if we don’t know shit (there is quite a bit of this).

The book covers a lot of ground: the cellular and chemical composition of excrement, the precarious state of the planet’s health, the history (and future) of waste disposal. The author employs a “holonocratic, panarchic” vision of the way things fit together. This awkwardly worded approach involves a holistic view of life, with interconnected levels of organization undergoing complex processes of growth, collapse, and change.  

Waltner-Toews obviously had a lot of fun writing this book, and he adopts a jokey tone throughout (the title is actually one of his weaker efforts). But he can also be very serious, and makes big claims for his subject, opining that “the natural order of life is based on shit,” and sounding an alarm over how we “are transforming a wonderful, complex planet into piles of shit.”  

Most readers familiar with environmental issues will be aware of the problem. Waste, in all its forms, is the dark side of consumption, and has been the subject of much thoughtful analysis. The solutions suggested here – chiefly finding new ways to make use of waste as fertilizer or fuel – are also well known. However, Waltner-Toews puts all this into an informative and entertaining package, and there’s some original consideration of important issues, in particular the nexus between excrement, globalization, and the spread of infectious disease. Most impressive is the way the book challenges us to engage in new modes of thinking to find solutions to our current dilemmas.